The UK has made history by becoming the first country ever to vote to leave the European Union. With a turnout of approximately 72%, the British people narrowly voted to exit the trade bloc, a decision that has far reaching consequences in a number of different areas. At around 6am London time the Leave campaign crossed the necessary threshold of 16.8 million votes to claim victory and achieved around 52% of the vote, compared with the Remain campaign’s 48%. It was a hard night for the Remain campaign as polling had suggested the UK would stay in the EU, however as results continued to flood in throughout the evening the Leave vote appeared to be stronger that originally thought.
The decision made last night has many political consequences and it is important that there should be a sober look at these. The constitutional questions are especially interesting but there are also consequences relating to ideology, realpolitik, and the economy that need to be addressed.
Firstly the constitutional questions. In May the SNP campaigned on a promise that they would hold another referendum “if there is a material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will”. Not only did Scotland vote overwhelmingly for remaining within the EU (62.9% in favour of staying), but every single counting area in Scotland returned a remain vote. Admittedly this varied greatly, for example the result was essentially 50%-50% in Moray, but this result can easily be used by the SNP to show how different Scotland is from the rest of the UK. Nicola Sturgeon has already made comments about the Brexit vote may be a catalyst for another independence referendum which would be a fantastic thing. As a leftist I support the disintegration of the British state, so I am more than happy to have this referendum result begin this process. Not only will Britain no longer be a member of a neoliberal trading bloc, but it will bring about the political independence of Scotland.
The second constitutional question is in reference to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland voted in favour of remaining (55.7%) unlike England and Wales, and a Brexit vote has many implications for the province. For example one of the key arguments in the debate, unfortunately, had been immigration in which people said they wished to reduced the numbers of EU migrants coming into Britain. In order to actually do this, there would need to be border controls on the Northern Irish border with the Republic, as failure to do this would allow migrants to enter Britain without border checks via the province. Sinn Féin responded to the news by arguing that there should be open discussions about a referendum on a united Ireland as the people of Northern Ireland have just been pulled out of the EU against their will. As a supporter of a united Ireland I wouldn’t be too cavalier about having a referendum as there are deep divisions along nationalist and unionist lines in the province, and I’m not convinced that this vote will have shaken unionists from their position.
The ideological dimension of this result is important to look at. The discourse of the referendum was explicitly right-wing. The Leave campaign was led by right-wing Tories and UKIP, whereas the Remain campaign was spearheaded by the rest of the Conservative Party, neoliberal organisations like the IMF, and large corporate entities. Of course there were other campaigns outside of this dynamic, for example there was the radical left-wing case for Brexit (or Lexit) and the Labour In For Europe campaign, but the dominant discourse of the campaign was right-of-centre. In order to prevent this becoming a permanent ideological realignment the Left needs to set out an agenda to deal with peoples’s concerns.
I have always maintained that most of the problems that people associate with the EU are actually red herrings that could be solved by national governments.Labour needs to continue making the argument that they will clamp down on tax avoidance to ease austerity measures, strictly police and enforce the minimum wage to prevent undercutting, and a massive programme of house building to reduce the strain on councils. For instance, Labour shouldn’t say “immigration is a good thing” because, although I agree with this statement, many people believe this sounds out of touch. Instead they should focus on the failures of the state to cope with immigration and redouble their efforts on this front. This will give the impression of the party responding to the will of the electorate, whilst also not caving to the outwardly xenophobic rhetoric of UKIP.
The realpolitik dimension is also worth mentioning, as there are profound questions about both Labour and the Tories that should be explored. The Tories are in a very difficult position. The Conservative government was elected on a manifesto of a referendum in which they would argue for a Remain vote. Not only has this not transpired, but Cameron has said he will step down and he may be replaced by someone to his Right, which will alienate many socially liberal people that supported Cameron’s detoxified Tory party. What is certain is that no government business will be achieved until Cameron goes, and if another general election takes place the country will be plunged into another campaign, during which nothing will get done. The Tories would have fought for twenty years to get a majority government and could well have just thrown it away. The 2015 election was compared with 1992 because of the number of ‘shy Tories’, but now it appears that the Second Cameron government may also share huge divisions over Europe with John Major’s time in Number 10.
In regards to Labour, Jeremy Corbyn is uniquely positioned to unify the party in the face of this defeat. Some Blairites have started leaking criticism of Corbyn for his performance in the campaign and some are arguing that he should step down. This is a stupid idea for a number of reasons. What would happen if Corbyn was ousted? There would be another leadership election and the winner would be either someone just as left-wing or someone more centrist. This would see no change in Labour’s prospects as someone equally left-wing would have shown that the contest was pointless, and someone more centrist would be more pro-EU, which would alienate the white working-class voters that voted for Brexit. The other plainly stupid reason is that this would be a form of self-flagellation. The Tories are in crisis, the Prime Minister has stepped down, and Labour’s response would be to piss around with another leadership election. No. This would be the time to unify the party and grind the Tories into submission in public whilst working at a grassroots level to appeal to Leave voters. Any other strategy, in my view, would be foolish.
Finally I want to look at the economy, particularly in a more normative sense. The economic news coming out is all talking about how financial markets are responding however I believe this is the wrong conversation. Now that Britain will leave the EU we should have a conversation about what we want the purpose of the economy to be. Now is the perfect time to make great strides in countering the neoliberal capitalist narrative of the last thirty years.
For example, everyone is talking about how businesses will have to re-calibrate their exports however I would argue that we should recast the economy to focus on providing for domestic markets and reducing production to provide a sustainable level of economic activity. Further, we should end our reliance on the financial sector and the City of London and focus government policy on increasing economic activity in more deprived areas, particularly in South West England, North East England, and Central Wales. Making moves towards nationalising industries like energy and transport, introducing rent caps, and encouraging community ownership would be positive steps to re-balance the economy to be more democratic and more sustainable.
I have outlined my own opposition to the EU but I am not elated with the consequence of the referendum. Although the result was my preferred choice the tone of the campaign has been so divisive that I believe that the last impact of the referendum will undermine people’s enthusiasm for politics. On the flip side there is one good thing that will come from this referendum. People who voted against the EU for what I would call a bad reason, like perceived high levels of immigration, will discover that leaving the EU will have little impact unless there is a fundamental reappraisal of free movement of labour.
There is a risk that this vote may encourage people to vote for UKIP, because like the SNP the party was identified with this issue but I’m not sure this will be the case. The SNP’s popularity exploded because they were seen as the party of independence and that option lost the vote, thus leaving many people feeling that they should switch allegiance. However because Brexit won the day the very raison d’être of UKIP has been accomplished and therefore I doubt that people will now flock the a party whose primary political goal has been achieved. Overall I am in a strange position because irrespective of the result the same bunch of right-wing Tories would be in charge; it’s just a choice between people who are openly right-wing and people who are good at hiding it.
Although the result went the way I wanted it to, the Labour movement must be unified and vigilant to make sure that the Tories leading the Brexit negotiations do not use this event as a proxy to further undermine workers’ rights. Labour’s job is now to argue that outside the European Union, Britain can still be an outwardly looking nation. If Labour are truly internationalists they should claim that this vote does not change how the Labour views their comrades in France, Italy, or Greece. There is a role that Labour must play and all I can say is thank goodness that some insufferable centrist isn’t leading the party. In Jeremy Corbyn Labour have a leader that can appeal to people who voted to Leave and claim that there still can be a home for these voters in the party. Some are already trying to pin this result on Jeremy Corbyn but I don’t see how a strongly pro-EU Blairite will be able to appeal to the Brexiteers any better than Corbyn. The Tories will be in disarray and it’s Labour’s time to capitalise and transform the country.